Writing the end of your book can feel super intimidating. After all, it colors readers’ perception of every painstakingly-edited page that came before it. It may even determine whether readers love or hate your book.
No pressure, right?
While there’s no formula for a perfect ending, there are best practices. Here are a few to keep in mind.
Good fiction balances its own equations by the end of the story. Characters’ fates are complex and justified. Show your characters experiencing consequences for their actions and running up against their own limitations. When bad things happen to good people, let readers see a glimmer of redemption. Craft a story world readers can feel okay about, even in the face of injustice and tragedy.
Contrary to what Stranger Things fans’ #JusticeForBarb campaign would have you believe, you don’t need to fuss over every character this way. However, pay close attention to your story’s central characters. Let karma find its way to them eventually.
In addition to a certain moral balance, your ending needs plausibility. Don’t rely on happenstance for your story’s climax. Even if you include plenty of twists and surprises, they should build on the foundation established by the rest of the book.
Respect the reader’s imagination.
A satisfying ending requires a hint of ambiguity. Readers need space to imagine what happens next. Think of it this way: your ending wraps up the plot for this book, but not for your characters’ entire lives.
Leave a little something on the horizon to hint that life will go on. Your characters will still have obstacles to overcome, even if the ones they faced in this story have passed. When you let readers imagine what might come next, your characters live on in their hearts forever.
Hedge your bets on the sequel.
If you’re writing a series, write as many endings as you write books. Don’t leave your readers with an emotionally frustrating cliffhanger.
Even in the best cases, sequels take time to bring to market. I recently read a bestselling YA novel with such an unresolved ending I finished it feeling angry, even though I knew the author had already signed a contract for the sequel. Unresolved endings can feel manipulative, like you’ve stripped readers of their choice to read the next book. They also keep fans hanging. The book I mentioned released a full 18 months before the anticipated release date of its sequel. That’s a long time to harbor negative feelings about a story.
Not only that, life can always get in the way of a sequel. Even ignoring the whims of publishers and publishing platforms, we writers are vulnerable to the unexpected. We can’t always predict when a health or family crisis, job change, or birth of a child will upend our writing plans. Best to give readers a story they love so much they’ll voluntarily come back for more, rather than twist their arm to read the sequel.
Know your readers have earned it, too.
The average audiobook is around 10 hours long. Traditional book readers often spend days or even weeks stealing moments to read. In other words, reading a book is a commitment. An intimate experience. Your readers have entrusted their most valuable possession — their leisure time — to your story.
Don’t betray that trust. An ending that feels unfair or improbable, or that doesn’t answer the questions you’ve set up throughout the book, will feel like a waste of your readers’ time. So will an ending that makes them feel deliberately left in the dark, like they need an MFA to understand it. After spending several hours on your story, readers expect respect and closure.
When it comes down to it, your ending is a lot like any other chapter of your book: it should leave a few questions but not too many (or too big), logically follow from the chapters before it, and feel satisfying and challenging all at once.